Scourge of the smuggler
12 October 1999
Coastwatch's expansion may only just be keeping pace with illegal traffic, writes Steve Creedy...
THE crew of the Coastwatch aircraft were using a night-vision device earlier this year to examine a merchant vessel sailing south of Sydney and they were suspicious.
They had been diverted en route to Newcastle and there was something not right about the way the ship was behaving. They reported their concerns to Coastwatch's parent organisation, the Australian Customs Service, and a police boat was sent to investigate.
The initial report came back negative: the Kayuen was just another boat on its way from Sydney to Melbourne. But Coastwatch stuck to its guns and police boarded the boat. Eventually they found 80 illegal immigrants in secret compartments buried under sand in the ship's cargo hold. According to recently appointed Coastwatch director-general Rear Admiral Russ Shalders, the Kayuen is a prime example of the increasing sophistication of people smugglers. Rusting hulks and rickety wooden vessels are being replaced by freshly painted ships with high-frequency radio, radar and global positioning systems. [emphasis added]
They look like ordinary vessels, they operate further south and, unlike some refugee boats, they do not want to be found. The Kayuen had disappeared off the registry for about five years, returning with special modifications to carry illegal immigrants. Shalders does not not know whether it made other trips here, but believes it almost certainly smuggled people to the US and Canada.
The ship had false compartments 'you wouldn't have found unless you were a naval architect or unless you had the drawings', he says.
'The false compartments contained sewerage, air, supplies, fresh water. The vessel could have actually carried about 1000 illegal immigrants in those false compartments and you would not have known unless you carried out a very thorough search.'
Shalders's appointment in July was part of a $124 million federal government package over four years aimed at boosting coastal surveillance to help deal with these sorts of problems.
The expansion means Coastwatch will add two DASH-8 aircraft for surveillance on the east coast and an electronics-packed helicopter will start operating in the Torres Strait from January.
It also gets a $20 million national surveillance centre to be purpose built in Canberra -- complete with intelligence analysts -- that Shalders expects to be a linchpin in the new operation.
But even with an expanded fleet of 15 fixed-wing aircraft and two helicopters, all operated by private contractors, Coastwatch faces a formidable task.
Coastwatch aircraft, supported by Customs patrol boats and in conjuction with the RAAF and navy, patrol 37,000km of coastline and 9 million square kilometres of ocean for a variety of agencies, such as the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority and the Federal Police.
They conducted 3391 flights in 1997-98, logging more than 15,000 flying hours and reporting 125,273 sightings. Worse, many of the problem areas Coastwatch monitors -- fishing disputes, people smuggling, environmental infringements -- are growing.
The upgrade comes in the wake of increased fishing disputes, continuing drug running and a rise in what Shalders sees as potentially the most damaging problem for Australia: quarantine violations.
'Potentially, the introduction of diseases to our livestock has a much bigger impact than anything else,' he says. But it is the record numbers of illegal immigrants -- Coastwatch has detected about 45 boats carrying more than 1200 people so far this year -- that is the issue du jour.
It was given impetus earlier this year by high-profile landings of Chinese illegals at Scotts Head, NSW, and Holloways Beach, Queensland.
Shalders knows that he faces some formidable foes, including sophisticated organised crime rackets, and that there is big money to be made.
'The trade in illegal immigrants around the world has been estimated at being worth $US7 billion [$10.7 billion] a year [and] there are about 4 million candidate illegal immigrants at any one time,' he says.
'The really worrying trend is this organised crime involvement. In China, for example, where the organisers are known as snakeheads, it's very organised traffic. Australia was subject to at least four attempts earlier this year from Chinese syndicates.
'The smugglers using Indonesia as a transit point are equally well organised.'
Coastwatch is countering that increasing sophistication with some of the latest surveillance technology, including forward-looking infra-red, encrypted and satellite communications, high-definition television, night-vision goggles and advanced radar.
But the 32-year Australian navy veteran, who has commanded several ships and served in the Gulf War, wants to take the technology even further.
Nominating information and communications as the key weapons, he is moving to strengthen links with the military and wants to tap information sources wherever they exist.
'I think my appointment goes part way towards achieving that. I know what intelligence, what information, is available within defence,' he says. 'But, equally, there are other sources of information that, if we can patch into them and manipulate to our purposes, we can use to task our assets far more effectively and ultimately serve our clients far more effectively.'
That task will fall mainly to the national surveillance centre, expected to be online early next year. In addition to improved communications links, it will include for the first time eight intelligence analysts. [emphasis added]
Shalders says it will make Coastwatch more effective, but stops short of quantifying the improvement.
'I can't say we'll be 20 per cent more effective because the threat changes,' he says. 'Our targets are dynamic, constantly moving -- whether it's fisheries, immigration, quarantine or whatever.'
Shalders will also be setting up a cell within Coastwatch to look at what new technologies can be brought to bear during the next few years.
This may include the use of imaging and radar satellites, airships, tethered balloons, acoustic sensors and new radars. But is all this enough? There has never been a shortage of people willing to criticise the attempt to cover a nation as big as Australia with ja handful of aircraft.
Shalders is reluctant to guess what percentage of illegal traffic Coastwatch detects, pointing out there is no way of counting undetected boats. But he'd like to think most have been caught in the past three months.
He says the $124 million revamp is a 'pretty fair plan', but admits he would like more assets and that the size of the task -- particularly with action increasing in the south -- makes it impossible to watch everything all the time.
However, not everyone agrees that a civilian agency -- even an expanded one -- is the way to go. Some argue surveillance should become a military responsibility or that we need a US-style Coastguard. [emphasis added]
Australian Defence Studies Centre director Anthony Bergin leans to the military option and sees Shalders's appointment as a step in the right direction.
Bergin argues it is in Australia's long-term interest to transfer Coastwatch to the military, which conducts surface patrols using the navy's Fremantle-class patrol boats and long-range surveillance flights using RAAF PC3 Orions.
He sees the defence forces as better able to handle growing long-term problems such as fishing disputes, Indonesian incursions and and people smuggling.
And he contends there is an advantage in having peacetime surveillance operations that can be quickly transformed for defence.
'These issues to do with drugs and people smuggling... ultimately are national security issues, not just civil surveillance tasks,' he says. 'So, basically, under a wider definition of national security, defence ought to be playing the key role in these things.' [emphasis added]
Then there is the question of who is ultimately responsible for national surveillance. At the moment, says Bergin, the decentralised system means it falls between the cracks.
'Coastwatch itself is not ultimately responsible for national surveillance -- it is a co-ordinating body that responds to tasking from agencies and it co-ordinates an interdepartmental group that allocates resources, both military and civil.'
Shalders counters by pointing to a series of studies conducted since 1983 that concluded it should remain part of Customs.
'I think Coastwatch actually delivers a pretty good product -- I think we give a pretty good return investment,' he says.